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Colorado fires could be bigger, more dangerous

Steven K. Paulson
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
In this Monday, March 21, 2011 photo, fire crews from Fairmount and Jefferson County Fire watch over a home in Golden Gate Canyon during the Indian Gulch fire in Golden, Colo. Air tankers and ground crews battled a wind-whipped wildfire in the foothills west of Denver as officials warned that eastern Colorado's worst drought in nearly a decade makes that part of the state vulnerable to more burning. (AP Photo/The Denver Post, RJ Sangosti) MANDATORY CREDIT; MAGS OUT; TV OUT
AP | The Denver Post

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Colorado wildfires may get bigger and more dangerous because of dry conditions and dying trees, Colorado’s state forester warned Thursday.

State Forester Jeff Jahnke said that high winds and dry forests are making it more difficult to send in firefighters to fight blazes on the ground. He said they may have to rely more on equipment.

Jahnke said the public needs to understand that not all fires can be quickly contained.



“If you take a standing dead tree that has been dead for five years, you can’t put a firefighter out in a stand of those trees if it’s windy because you threaten his safety. So we’re going to have to incorporate those kinds of concerns into our initial attack. I think the public may see fires getting bigger and not understand why, and it’s because we can’t safely put a firefighter in there. That could result in bigger fires and we’re going to have to spend a lot of time explaining why,” he said.

Bark beetles have killed 4 million acres of forests in Colorado and Wyoming, and U.S. Sen. Mark Udall says he’s also growing more concerned about the possibility of a wildfire igniting beetle-killed trees. Udall said the bark beetle epidemic has turned hundreds of acres of forests to kindling, which increases the risk of fire and threatens infrastructure and waterways. On Saturday, he plans to visit with victims of the Fourmile Canyon fire and volunteers helping them recover.




In October, the Colorado Democrat and senators from other Western states asked the federal government to redirect $49 million in unspent money to remove beetle-killed trees. No action has been taken on the request.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who got a briefing Thursday from fire officials, said the state is prepared for an extended fire season after major fires in January and February. Fire season usually runs from May to September, but the state had 64 fires in March.

“Roughly one in five or one in six people in Colorado are in a place where they are at risk of wildland fires,” Hickenlooper said.

Federal officials assured Hickenlooper they would have resources to help the state because 65 percent of the forests are on federal land.

Tony Dixon, deputy regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service, said $18 million has been set aside to get the state through the fire season, contingent on Congress approving the federal budget. Officials said that will make available 350 firefighters, 44 fire engines, five helicopters and three specially trained 20-member hotshot crews that respond quickly to fires. The Bureau of Land Management also has offered resources.

Last month, Hickenlooper issued an emergency disaster declaration allowing the state to spend up to $1.5 million to cover firefighting costs.

Fire season usually runs from May to September, but the state had 64 fires in March. A wildfire that started Saturday near Las Animas that grew to about 17 square miles, and a wildfire west of Fort Collins destroyed 13 homes earlier this month.


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